Virginia Tech's poise and motivation faced their sternest tests Thursday.
The Hokies passed both in a 16-3 road victory at East Carolina.
Conference USA's defending champions were not by any stretch Virginia Tech's most formidable opponents this season. That would be Alabama and Georgia Tech, combined record 16-1.
But the Pirates (5-4) presented more subtle challenges.
The most pressing issue was motivation. The No. 22 Hokies (6-3) had lost two consecutive games to vanish from national contention and fade from ACC title discussion.
So the question had to be asked. Had the Hokies written off the season?
Yes, as Tech coach Frank Beamer harped throughout the week, the Hokies still can extend their streak of 10-win seasons to six. But while such benchmarks are important to coaches and perhaps fans, players tend to be unaware and indifferent.
So Thursday's effort, and those for the remainder of the season, had to emanate from within.
As usual, that effort started with redshirt freshman tailback Ryan Williams.
Stuffed for no gain and a 5-yard loss on his first two carries, Williams never blinked. Discarding the effects of last week's critical lost fumble against North Carolina, he ran through and around tackles for 179 yards on 26 carries, never more so than on a second-quarter, 46-yard rumble.
No surprise. Williams approaches and plays the game with a maturity that belies his youth. He's a consummate pro, and with 1,109 yards he's on pace to shatter the ACC freshman record of 1,265 set last season by teammate Darren Evans, sidelined this season with a knee injury.
Several of Williams' best runs were inside, which speaks well of redshirt freshman center Michael Via. He made his first college start Thursday, replacing junior Beau Warren, who sprained his left knee against North Carolina and did not travel with the team to Greenville.
At 6-foot-7, 284 pounds, Via is unusually tall and a tad light for a center. But he not only appeared to block credibly but also snapped the ball perfectly, whether quarterback Tyrod Taylor was under center or in shotgun.
Another Tech freshman, inside linebacker Lyndell Gibson, started for the first time Thursday. He simply won the job from sophomore Jake Johnson, who, despite ranking as the team's No. 4 tackler, has struggled with his assignments.
Like Via, Gibson acquitted himself well, and his most visible contribution came as the Pirates drove deep into Hokies territory early in the third quarter. When running back Giavanni Ruffin fumbled on a first-down snap from the 18, Gibson emerged from a scrum with the ball at the 20, preserving Tech's 13-3 lead.
That edge would have been 20-3 had Taylor not fumbled at the goal line after a 16-yard, second-quarter run. The ball bounded across the end line, giving the Pirates a touchback and possession at the 20.
Taylor redeemed himself with a 13-yard run for the game's lone touchdown, capping a 79-yard drive and giving the Hokies a 13-0 lead.
This was undoubtedly the most hostile crowd to confront the Hokies this season. Pirates faithful are rabid 24/7, but with an exclusive, national, prime-time television slot, the town, campus and stadium were wired for sound.
Big-dog programs in the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten and even the ACC are accustomed to such exposure. East Carolina not so much.
Not that Virginia Tech had entered any pits this season. Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium is a monument to apathy, and Georgia Tech's Grant Field is surprisingly tame given the home team's caliber.
The Hokies' upcoming roadies at Maryland and Virginia? Fans of those teams are so disillusioned, they may wear maroon to the games.
Tech seemed unfazed by Thursday's racket, whether from the crowd or Guns N' Roses blaring over the PA. Taylor communicated audibles with hand signals, and it was the Pirates who were nagged by false starts.
The victory won't appease many Virginia Tech fans irritated by recent losses to Georgia Tech and North Carolina, especially those barking at offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring. The Hokies converted only 4-of-14 third downs and scored only three second-half points.
But style wasn't the issue on this night. Poise on the road and motivation were.
With three regular-season games remaining, the Hokies showed they still care.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.